Diamonds for dictionaries



Recently, we went to see the fantastic exhibition on “Maharajas” at the Victoria and Albert museum.  The exhibition is split in to three sections.  First section has paintings, jewelry, jeweled armor, rich trappings for horse and elephant on a regal parade.  Things were made of precious stones, gold and silver.  Even the royal wine flask was made of pure jade, inlaid with precious stones.  There were fantastic paintings showing how Rajput ladies hunted with rifles and played energetic polo games with their men-folk !


Yet, for all this extravagance, it was all held in abeyance to the whim and pleasure of the Great Mogul !  The emperor in Delhi could grant lands, titles and gadi to whoever he pleased.  Sons of royal lines stretching back to antiquity lined up to be generals and governors in the employ of the Emperor.  One particular painting reinforced how even the proud Maharanas of Marwad were forced to bow before a mogul prince.  Having given their daughters to the Emperor, other Rajput princes stood, heads suitably bowed.


The next room dealt with the rising power of the East India Company and culmination of this in the Imperial Darbars of the British Raj.  As the time of the Moguls came to an end, the Indian princes and kings shifted their dependence and loyalties to the "Company".  Having won the war with Napoleon in Europe, the British swaggered into Indian courts extolling the virtues of their military hardware and war strategies.  Suitably impressed, Indian kings "outsourced" their defense and military procurement to the British. 


Indian kings could have declared their "independence" at this point, but instead, they preferred to have someone lord it over them !  They asked the British to keep peace between each other, guarantee their borders and provide security to their ancestral states !!  They invited a third party to mediate in their internal quarrels and gave up their own independence to hear someone else pronounce “justice” for them.


British used this opportunity to expand their influence and later their territories.  Any prince or king who did not follow their “treaty” to the letter was heavily punished with fines and even confiscation of their lands.  Kings could no longer marry or adopt sons without British consent !  Traders became the political agents mediating between princes and later became the de facto rulers of the land !   


In 1857, there was an opportunity to get rid of both the Moguls and the British, but, the sepoys went to the Mogul emperor and most of the royal princes helped the British.  Result was the abolishment of the house of Timur and ending of the Company rule.  An aging emperor was dethroned and a new Empress was created !  Indian princes were now to be ruled by the British Raj !  In 1877, at a glittering assembly of Indian royals, a foreign queen became the “Empress of India”.  Celebrated in a room size painting, the scene was poignant with irony as proud men sat on gilded thrones, accepting a woman as their liege-lord when their own women still lived in strict purdah !  Subsequent Durbars were even more impressive.  In 1911, the reigning Emperor came in person to accept the pledges of his loyal royals.  Proud princes bore the train of the royal mantel as their fathers bowed and walked backwards to honour the King Emperor !!


Here there were fantastic costumes, jewels, letter written in gold ink by the Rani of Jhasi, video footage of the great Darbar of 1911 and more paintings.  This room houses some fantastic gifts send to the British royalty as tribute by “native prices and chieftains of India”.  Note the irony of how kings and maharajas were demoted at a single stroke to native princes and chiefs ! 


In addition to the taxes and fines paid to the British government, silver thrones, palanquin encased in carved ivory, jeweled sword with a scabbard covered with 719 large diamonds were gifted to the British Kings by the kings of India  Victoria and Albert Museum writes with sad irony that what the Indian princes got in return for these extravagant gifts were only Bibles and dictionaries !  British clearly felt that the poor benighted natives of India desperately needed the civilization offered by their new religion and modern education.  What a slap in the face it must have been for haughty rajputs kings and princes, to get bibles and dictionaries as return gifts for all the diamonds and jewels they offered their British overlords !!


Change in style of the royals was evident from the objects on display in this room.  Kings no longer dined in gold and silver.  They no longer drank from jade cups.  Instead, they used expensive glass marketed as “Belgian crystal” !  Palaces were now of the new Western styles.  A 15 foot photo showed the different styles of palaces in Gwalior, stretching out in to the countryside !


The last room showcased the elegant Eton educated Maharajas of the 20th Century.  Diamond necklaces designed by Cartier and Van Cleef, Art Deco furniture, princes and princesses posing in Indian and Western outfits with great sense of style and showmanship in both !  A huge Rolls Royce stood in the middle of the room to show the sophistication of the ultra modern rulers of India.  Their genuine desire to live in the past whilst bringing modernity of education and good governance to their people was touching to see.  Many died in Europe's two "world wars" to show their loyalty to the British Raj.


It all came to a naught though. 

Princes had not learned from their history.  Their bards recited the long list of royal heritage going back for 100 generations, but no one was listening to the lessons of this millennium long history.  Princes forgot that you have to "rule" to be "royal".  Gallivanting in Europe and bathing in champagne makes you rich, but not royal.

At independence of
 India, in 1947, the princes were once again poised at the brink of history.  
To declare independence of their own or to give up everything they stood for, so that India and Pakistan could be “whole nations” and not be “moth eaten”!  Having abdicated any meaningful sovereignty for so many centuries, they did not know which way to turn.  Most took the advice of their Viceroy and gave up their kingdoms – 563 of them – to the two new nations.  Only Kashmir and Hydrabad tried to remain independent.  Pakistan forced the hand of Kashmir, making it embrace India in a desperate hurry after an ill-concealed invasion.  Hydrabad was unceremoniously absorbed into India a few years later.  The greatest insult was yet to come.   


In less than 24 years after having voluntarily signed over their lands to the new Republic, princes and kings of India found themselves exposed again.  Daughter of the man they gave their kingdoms to, unilaterally took away their privy purses and rescinded even their titles !!  Indira Gandhi’s persecution of the princes was mean spirited and in breach of the constitution and promises made by her own father Jawaharlal Nehru.


Yet, no one protested.  
No one rose up to challenge the breach of faith.  
There were no more loyal subjects to fight for the royals !! 


Staring poverty in the face, India's princes have had to reinvent themselves as “heritage hoteliers”.  
Palaces, once the preserve of the privileged few, can now be rented by the day !  Indeed, how the mighty have fallen !! 


Exhibitions like these help us learn lessons from such glittering shards of history.
We need to learn from them the important of values of unity, self-sufficiency, self-confidence and self-reliance.  Our precious treasures were given away by our own hands because we were not united and let foreigners decide our fate.  To avoid repeat of such a sad fate we need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again. - video of the exhibition and some of its best objects.

Maps of India and its empires through the ages


“Those who forget their history, are doomed to repeat it.”
Various versions of this saying come from George Santayana and Edmund Burke 


© Bhagwat    [email protected]


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